The Perception of Progress

Chances are if you are regularly exercising you are doing so to improve some area of your physical health.  Maybe you just enjoy it, I know I do, but even if pure enjoyment gets you to the gym every day you likely still have goals similar to others that run the gamut from things such as fat loss, muscle gain, speed improvements, strength gains, improving specific biomarkers of health, or any combination thereof. We set goals in those areas to help establish healthy habits and workout to reach those goals, monitoring our progress along the way.

Our perception of progress (or lack thereof) is highly influential in how long we stick with our plans and whether or not we tweak or make changes or even scrap the plan altogether. When we see ourselves making progress it’s easy to stick to the prescribed plan.  In fact it’s just plain fun and enjoyable when you chain together a series of workouts where you see the progress day to day. On the flip side if we do not see the expected progress we get discouraged and dejected and as a result our desire to follow the plan can wane or fade completely.

The problem with progress is that it really is all about perception and there are numerous factors, in addition to the actual physical change, that can influence the outcome of a certain test of progression. So while the concept of linear progression seems like a sound method for monitoring progress, it does have it shortcomings that make it problematic when the rate of physical progress does not match the expectations in our mind.

Linear progression is the simplest form of monitoring improvements, and it’s incorporated into nearly every training program. In strength training the basic premise is that each week, for a particular lift, you should be able to add weight to that lift.  You are achieving your goal of getting stronger each week by adding weight to the bar.  For beginners these sorts of results are obviously easier to produce than for a seasoned veteran.

Other applications of linear progression include adding reps, decreasing the amount of time to do a certain number of reps or sets, or increasing the difficulty of the move (i.e. pushups to clapping pushups). These are all great measures in the gym, giving you concrete numbers to work with.  I love tracking PRs, reps, and times for certain lifts and finishers, but we all know PR’s can’t (and shouldn’t) be set every week.  This is why I also meticulously track external factors, such as fatigue, soreness from an injury or previous workout, nutrition, or sleep (more specifically a lack of sleep due to such things as staying up too late writing an article).

With all the external factors that have an influence on performance it can be difficult to track progression.  Let’s say you’re having a rough week in terms of sleep, job stress, and maybe home life stress and you string together a series of less than stellar workouts.  If you’re not tracking those external factors you may blame the program you’re following, get upset and ditch it for the next latest and greatest thing (aka program hopping or shiny red object syndrome).  Had you continued and rectified the external influences you may have eventually seen the desired outcomes of the program.

As nice as it is to identify or blame some of these external factors, the truth of the matter is that you can have all of that shored up and still not progress at the desired pace.  That’s because linear progression is an oversimplification.  You can toil for weeks, seemingly plateaued, before you have that breakthrough where you completely smash a PR.  Were you really stuck those weeks or did the micro-progressions just take time to manifest? Maybe it was a mental block that you finally overcame rather than a physical one. Remember when Roger Bannister broke the four minute mile? Soon sub-4 times started cropping up all over the place once people knew it was possible. On the flip side it could be cumulative physical fatigue holding you back. Maybe you needed to back off your training for a week (a planned deload) to allow your body to recover and make the physiological adaptations necessary to improve.

So although it may have seemed like progress was nonexistent for a few weeks (or appeared to be moving in the wrong direction) you were still making progress.  It sure wasn’t linear and it may have even looked like this:


What matter is that it was still progress.  Once you realize that linear advancements are not the norm adherence to a program becomes much easier. You don’t get discouraged as easily. You get determined. You work harder to achieve those goals. You expect that breakthrough to come at any moment and that drives your excitement to hit that workout with gusto. You don’t want to live with the pain of regret so you push on and establish the habits and routines that set you up for success.


Don’t be that guy on the bottom!

As I approach the RKC certification in April, one of my barometers of progress has been the snatch test.  Now while I don’t do the exact test every week, I perform variations of it and by doing so I am able to monitor my performance. Two weeks ago I hit 102 reps with my snatch size bell (24kg) during the 5 minute test. Last week I did 108 reps in 6 minutes, using the same weight.  At a glance it would appear I regressed a bit (18 snatches/minute vs. 20.4/minute the week prior. Yeah, I’m a math nerd), and maybe I did, but is sure as hell hasn’t discouraged me.

Although I did see progress each of the first 3 weeks of training, I know that won’t always be the case.  There may have been some external factors, such as a sleep and having to do the workout at 5am instead of my normal afternoon time slot. Or maybe I was just run down from that week’s worth of workouts.  Whatever the case I am not going to let the result of one workout dictate my attitude or my programming.  I’ll keep pressing forward and reevaluate when necessary (as too many workouts in a row with poor results may be indicative of necessary change, such as needing an extended rest to heal a bum shoulder and back).

The reality is there will always be places along the way where you stumble or fall down. It’s a matter of picking yourself back up, dusting yourself off, and continuing forward. The stumbles themselves are not a lack of progress or a regression. They absolutely are the progression. They are the necessary trials and tribulations that test your grit and resolution. The roadblocks that successful people overcome. Embrace them as part of the process, part of the progress, and your perception will absolutely change to the point where all goals will seem obtainable, regardless of the obstacles along your path to get there.

Clean, Squat, and Press Ladder - A Friday "Fun"isher
RKC Training Log: Week 4

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